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Wind farm decision could be six months away

A decision on the proposed Cherry Tree wind farm could be six months away, with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to decide whether it should defer its decision until after the findings of two studies into health effects.

It is expected to decide this week if it should postpone its decision pending a detailed study by the South Australian Environment Protection Authority into possible health effects of the Waterloo wind farm, and an update of a previous “rapid review” by the National Health and Medical Research Council into health issues regarding wind farms generally.

However, it indicated it could be prepared to also give a preliminary opinion should the final one be deferred. The VCAT hearing on the $100 million project is coming to an end after starting in lateJanuary.

In remarks made to the hearing last week, the tribunal members said “the one thing about which there is general agreement between the expert witnesses is that there is a need for further research and studies”.

“There is some direct evidence and much anecdotal evidence that people living in proximity to wind farms experience deleterious health effects, and those effects are of the same type, being sleep disturbance, increased anxiety, headaches, and pressure at the base of the neck,” the tribunal said.

“There is clearly an association between wind farms and the symptoms that have been described. The question is whether there is a causal link.”

“Those opposing wind farm say that the the association is of itself evidence of a causal link, particularly given that there is evidence that the symptoms disappear when people temporarily move away from the wind farm for a weekend, or a holiday, and reappear when they move back. On the other hand, there is a body of acoustic and medical evidence that the cause of these complaints cannot be attributed to wind turbines on any physical or physiological basis.”

The tribunal believed there were two issues: was there a causal link – physiological or psychological – between wind farms and the impact on health or people living in proximity; and if so, what was the incidence of these symptoms among the population of residents living in proximity to wind farms, and how did that incidence vary (if it did at all) with distance from the wind turbines.

“It is arguable that the application of the precautionary principle requires the proponents to prove that there is no causal link between wind farms and deleterious health effects or, if there is, that it affects only a small proportion of the population,” the tribunal said.

“The issues are compounded by the fact that there is virtually no overlap between the expertise of the acousticians and the expertise of the medical professionals, which makes it difficult to gel the conclusions reached by experts in these two fields.”

The tribunal invited submissions as to whether in the event that it was satisfied in relation to other issues of amenity – the impact on flora and fauna, and the affect on erosion and salinity – and if it was satisfied that there was a sound policy basis for the proposed development, it should defer a final decision until the further studies were available.

If a final decision was to be deferred, the tribunal would be helped if “during the interim a properly conducted survey could be carried out in relation to two or three operating wind farms to identify the incidence of health related complaints by people residing at various distances from wind turbines”.

“What we are endeavouring to ascertain is whether the problem which is said to exist is evident from soundly based empirical data. To assist the transparency of this process it may be helpful if a methodology was first agreed upon between (Infigen Energy, the Trawool Valley Whiteheads Creek Landscape Guardians and Mitchell Shire Council), who in turn may take on board any suggestions from the Waubra Foundation and other residents.”

It appreciated Infigen might “not be interested in pursuing these surveys if the tribunal’s findings in relation to the other issues are adverse, so we would be prepared to give our findings on those issues by way of a preliminary decision so that everyone knows where they stand”.

“The tribunal is not prepared to defer a final decision indefinitely, and so if the additional material is not to hand within the next six months or so we believe, we will have to determine the matter on the basis of the material now before us guided by the large number of decisions in the wind farm cases that have been made, and decisions relating to the application of the precautionary principle.”

Infigen said it was considering the suggested deferral, and would make submissions to the tribunal this week on the matter.